Not satisfied with already being near the top among highest U.S. cost-to-practice1 mandatory bar associations, on February 27, 2014 the Arizona Bar’s Board of Governors (BOG) voted 12-11 to hike annual member dues by 13% to $520 by 2019.
If at first you don’t succeed . . . .
The BOG first tried raising dues in December by 22%. But it was stymied when word got out about the stealth vote 12 days before Christmas. On being outed, the BOG regrouped and moved to postpone the vote till February. It then spun the delay as a self-congratulatory bid at notice, transparency and due process.
Unfortunately with more time to deliberate, the BOG also came up with a gambit. It dropped its initial $100 increase motion in favor of one that raised dues by ‘only’ $60. But there was a ‘catch.’ The lower increase was tied to an automatic escalator based on the consumer price index — as though what a state bar does has anything to do with the nation’s basket of consumer goods and services.
But fortunately, brakes were applied to the escalator. But as for the rest, “Il dado è tratto” as they still say in Italy long after Julius Caesar uttered “Alea iacta est.” In other words, “The die was cast.” When you’re talking fees, state bars always think it’s time to render to Caesar.
So given the Bar’s two-nostrils worth of rationale, it was never a question of “if” — but of “when” and by “how much.”
First, they’d argued the last dues increase was in 2005 as though there’s a gestation period for raising fees. And second, like that proverbial bushy-tailed chicken-counter in the hen-house, an increase was necessary. Or so said a supposed cost-analyzing “Program Review Committee” made up mostly of Bar staff and management. The committee took all of 9 hours over 3 months to do its multi-million dollar operational number-crunching and qualitative analysis.
So to the surprise of no one, the committee pronounced there wasn’t much to cut from a bloated $14.6 million budget — not if bureaucratic stakeholders wanted to keep gilding the Bar’s ‘full-service’ lily. And as usual, the largely complaisant BOG went along.
One thing the Bar’s spinmeisters also proclaimed was that Arizona’s fees are only tied for tenth highest among bar associations. But try running that declaration to ground.
When it comes to decoding what and how much lawyers pay to practice in a given jurisdiction, it’s frankly difficult. To start, you need something better than a secret decoder ring from a cereal box.
It’s a muddle. You have to parse, poke and ponder2 through data most of which is hidden behind expedient pay-walls. Or else you glean what you can from the Web whether the ABA or a state bar group.
Of course by mixing the apples with the oranges, it conveniently distorts the cost comparisons. And as long as we’re talking produce — it also helps keep the mushrooms fed and in the dark.
Don’t ask why voluntary bars are bunched in with the mandatory associations. It’s one thing to discretionarily and voluntarily pay high fees and quite another to be compelled if you want to keep more than snausages on the lawyer table.
Cost to Practice Rankings.
Ranking comparisons are as clear as mud. The last time I looked, the prior rankings were based on 2010 ABA surveys and the “Rankings by Cost to Practice in Each State” had Connecticut and Tennessee at No. 1 and No. 2, respectively. Both are voluntary bar associations. Both have non-bar-related fees that hurt.
But how was Georgia in third place at $536 when according to newer data compiled in 2013 by New Jersey’s Office of Attorney Ethics, Georgia’s “Maximum Mandatory Annual Fee” is $242?
And take Connecticut where voluntary annual membership in the bar association costs $280. Although you’re not required to join to practice, Connecticut’s Department of Revenue Services still collects an annual attorney occupational tax of $565, which goes to the state general fund not for lawyer regulation. The state’s high court then tacks on a yearly $110 payment to the Client Security Fund.
In Tennessee, also a non-mandatory bar state, $400 of the $570 fee lawyers pay is a “Professional Privilege Tax.” And like Connecticut, that money goes to state general revenue, not specifically to any bar-related function or to the Court.
And in Texas where membership is mandatory to practice, there’s a similar occupational tax that skews the cost-to-practice fees number higher. In the Lone Star State, $200 out of the $510 Texas lawyers pay to practice goes to state revenues not to fund the legal establishment.
Distinctions without a difference? Who cares if Caesar is the state, the court, or the bar association? It’s all money flowing out of lawyer pockets. But it matters when mandatory bars conveniently use non-decoded figures as convenient pretexts to justify high mandatory licensing fees.
So to make some semblance of the mud in the muddle, on a like-for-like dues comparison basis, Arizona is currently among the top three of the country’s 33 mandatory bars behind Alaska’s $660 and Hawaii’s $522. And going inactive in Arizona hardly saves you, either. Inactive Arizona Bar members pay $265 annually, highest among all jurisdictions and equal to or higher than what 20 other jurisdictions charge active bar members.3
And high budgets notwithstanding, by the time the latest dues increase fully implements in 2019, the Bar itself projects about a $4M surplus. An almost $15 million budget, after all, wasn’t nearly enough money.
What’s more by separate motion, the BOG also got approval to impose higher fees for in-house counsel; admissions on motion; pro hac vice; and late fees for mandatory annual filings like continuing legal education.
So when they get their online ballots and remember the incumbents who voted for even higher costs to practice, maybe members will also recall the moral in Aesop’s Fox and Stork fable. As the stork told the fox, “One bad turn deserves another.”
 See International Survey of Attorney Licensing Fees data compiled July 1, 2013 by Office of Attorney Ethics of New Jersey.
 Oregon fees include a $30 “diversity and inclusion assessment” and $45 for the client security fund (CSF), leaving a balance of $447. Comparable cost is actually less but close to Arizona’s $460 fee, $10 of which is for the client protection fund (CPF)). But Oregon also requires members to buy high-priced co-op professional liability insurance, which runs $3,200 per year even with modest coverage limits. There’s no deductible or penalty premium for purportedly high risk practice areas. In Hawaii, $34 is allocated to the Attorney Assistance Program and $30 to CSF. The remaining $440 is actually less than but very close to Arizona’s current fee of$460. Minus $65 for Legal Aid, the comparable cost in Texas is actually $235, considerably less than Arizona’s fees. Fees in Wisconsin include $50 for Legal Aid; $11 for a Mandatory CLE Fee; and $20 for CSF. That leaves $379, a comparable cost also less than Arizona’s fees. Based on all this, Arizona is actually ranked third in cost to practice. And while Alaska is Number One, it only requires 3 hours of CLE compared to Arizona’s 15. “Active Bar members are required to earn 3 ethics credits, encouraged to earn 9 additional credits, and required to file an MCLE Report each year.” See Alaska Bar Association MCLE at https://www.alaskabar.org/servlet/content/mcle.html. This effectively makes the cost lower to practice in Alaska than in Arizona. But then I’m adding bananas here to the apples and oranges. (Hat tip to D. M. Quinterri, Esq. for her additional data research!)
 “International Survey of Attorney Licensing Fees” data further notes Arizona has the highest fee for inactive attorneys. Op. cit.
Photo Credits: Caricature from Punch magazine of Lily Langtry. From the Punch Christmas Issue, December 1890, “Punch Among the Planets” at Wikipedia Commons, Public Domain, available from Project Gutenberg – http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/13244